In the name of avoiding violence, the police must not cede public space to violent protesters — regardless of whether they are far left or far right.
When black-clad anti-fascist protesters broke through police barricades Sunday afternoon and swarmed a peaceful rally in Berkeley, California, law enforcement stood aside and let them. City police Chief Andrew Greenwood explained the decision with a rhetorical question: “Does it make sense,” he asked, “to get into a major use of force over a grassy area?”
With all due deference to police expertise, things are not that simple. Violent protesters who cross barriers and disrupt peaceful protest are deeply threatening to freedom of speech.
The “antifa” didn’t just block the speech of the handful of far-right protesters who continued on after their planned demonstration was canceled. The antifa also disrupted the 2,000-person anti-racism rally that was taking place to counter the far right. By breaching the peace, the antifa damped the free speech of the peaceful anti-racists.
Imagine that 100 neo-Nazis, instead of 100 anti-fascists, had crossed barricades in defiance of police orders. The public would have been justifiably outraged. And a police chief who argued that it was wiser to withdraw his officers rather than provoke confrontation would be under significant pressure to recant or even resign.
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To be clear, my goal is not to criticize the police. Their thankless and crucial job of keeping the peace is the necessary condition for free speech. Avoiding violence should be a high priority, sometimes the highest. Contextual judgment is crucial.
The Berkeley police were on the ground and had to make a real-time judgment. I wasn’t there, and am relying on news reports and Greenwood’s words.
Rather, the Berkeley events raise the fundamental question of when police should intervene, by force if necessary, to protect peaceful speech from violent disruption.
Often, the situation is more clear-cut than it was in Berkeley, because violent protesters are trying to attack peaceful ones, with two distinct sides at odds. Under those conditions, the police are supposed to protect the peaceful speakers, not let the violent protesters shut them down.
If the police fail to protect peaceful protesters, then they’re allowing a version of what is known as a “heckler’s veto”: someone violating norms of…